Archive for the ‘Ethiopian Literature’ Category

I thought I’ll continue reading books set in Ethiopia and so picked this one, ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘ edited by Maaza Mengiste. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies‘.

Read Indies‘ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘Addis Ababa Noir’ is published by Akashic Books, an independent publisher based out of Brooklyn.

Addis Ababa Noir‘ is a collection of 14 short stories. They are all set in Addis Ababa, of course  Many of them are poignant stories, sometimes with heartbreaking endings. Many of them are set during the period of the Derg, between 1974-91 when the military dictatorship was in power in Ethiopia and during which time innocent people suffered. As you might have guessed by now, this is not a book of classic noir. So you won’t find stories like a woman plotting with the insurance agent to kill her husband and pocket the insurance money, or a woman plotting with a guest to kill her husband who is the motel owner and get his money. This is not that book. The noir aspect here is that things are sad and dark and bleak and there are no happy endings. There are some stories which don’t have heartbreaking endings and sometimes the endings are almost happy, but the endings in general are sad ones.

My favourite story from the book was ‘Father Bread‘ by Mikael Awake. In this story a young boy ends up in an orphanage. His family has been attacked and killed by hyenas. The man who owns the orphanage tries to put the young boy up for adoption to an American couple. But this man’s intentions are not necessarily noble. And the young boy, he is no ordinary young boy. The ending of the story was stunning and surprising and I didn’t see that coming. It was wonderful how the author took an idea from Ethiopian mythology and adapted it to a modern setting.

My second favourite story from the book was ‘Agony of a Congested Heart‘ by Teferi Nigussie Tafa. It is about the struggle of the Oromo people, who have been oppressed by successive Ethiopian governments. This story offers an insightful, tragic lesson in history. When the narrator says that while his African brothers and sisters suffered under white colonialism, his own people the Oromo suffered under black colonialism, it breaks our heart. Einstein once said – “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Humans just keep proving it everyday with their infinite levels of oppression. The oppressed continue to oppress others who are less fortunate than them, and this continues to infinite levels, and this has been there since the dawn of time with no end in sight. We’d assume that humans would have learnt the lessons of history by now and would try to be more kind and do better, but human stupidity is infinite as Einstein said, and it looks like they’ll never learn. When the narrator says in the end – “When I discovered this, I realized that my forty years of struggle had ended in nothing. Maybe struggle is not good. Maybe struggle is a curse! We all carry the agony of a congested heart. My agony, my people’s agony” – it breaks our heart.

I also loved the first story in the book, ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero, in which a man who is passing through a churchyard, is pulled aside by a stranger who then starts telling this man his story. ‘A Night in Bela Sefer‘ by Sulaiman Addonia is about a young man who responds to a strange ad in the paper and is hired for a job. It is a beautiful story about desire and identity and orientation. ‘A Double-Edged Inheritance‘ by Hannah Giorgis is about family and love with some revenge thrown in. ‘Dust, Ash, Flight‘ by Maaza Mengiste is a heartbreaking story about people who lose their family members to government-sponsored violence. ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about a mother’s love for her son. The mother is an unusual person, and you’ll know why when you read the story. ‘Of the Poet and the Cafe‘ by Girma T. Fantaye is about a man who goes in the morning to open his cafe and discovers that it has disappeared. He is even more surprised when no one seems to remember him or his cafe. It is a fascinating, surreal story and is almost Borgesian. ‘Kebele ID‘ by Linda Yohannes is a simple story but also a beautiful one. ‘None of Your Business‘ by Solomon Hailemariam is a story which asks questions on what is really a democracy and what happens when we fight for it and demand it.

I loved ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘. It was not at all what I expected. The stories explored Ethiopian culture and history and mythology and contemporary life and it was hard to classify them as classical noir. This noir series by Akashic Books is big and there is a huge backlist. Hoping to dip into that in the future.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero

“Those subtle stings to pride—they’re worse than the big ego blows because they’re not like some obvious pebble you can remove from your shoe. They are like shards that you know are there but can’t find and can’t get rid of.”

From ‘Ostrich‘ by Rebecca Fisseha

“My father waited. I knew that wait. It meant that their conversation was one response away from becoming a fight. All it needed was for her to say words sharper than his. Unlike other adults, my parents never hid their fights from anyone. They believed that disagreeing was normal and good, and always kissed afterward, no matter who won. But my mother didn’t respond that day. She let the silence be. It lingered even after my father rolled down his window to the sound of the city.”

From ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw

“Although Weyzero Fantish was a woman afflicted by many sorrows, she also loved life deeply. Mourning was what she did best, and she wanted to do it because everyone deserved to be mourned for, to be longed for, and the seed of sorrow she planted in her mourners’ hearts always loomed larger and more intricate, and would come back to her in the shape of kindness and kinship.”

From ‘Insomnia‘ by Lelissa Girma

“A mirror is a compassionate object reflecting false images the reflection wishes to believe,” his friend said. “If that man had watched himself from our vantage point, if he saw himself dining with his present condition, he would have thrown himself off a bridge and died. You can’t find out the truth about yourself until you come across your own self on the street, and then you observe yourself at a distance to decide what condition you are in.”

From ‘Of Buns and Howls‘ by Adam Reta

“To him, dead people were cool, because dead people couldn’t kill you.”

Have you read ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other books in Akashic’s noir series?


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I got Maaza Mengiste’s first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ many years back, when it first came out. I was waiting for the right time to read it. It looks like now is the right time. I read this for Black History Month.

The story told in ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is set sometime in 1974. Haile Selassie is still the Emperor of Ethiopia. But there is unrest brewing in the country. There is a famine in parts of the country. Students and other people protest against the government for not helping those suffering from the famine. Parts of the army protest against the government for higher pay. We see all this through the eyes of one family and their friends. The head of the family is a doctor. His wife is unwell right now. His eldest son is a professor. His youngest son is a student who is one of the protestors against the government. What happens when this family is swept away by historical events over which they have no control forms the rest of the story.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is a fascinating introduction to Ethiopian history of the 1970s, when great, terrible events overtook the country. Though it is a work of fiction, the story feels very real, and the author has done her research well. For me the book felt very personal. I spent my childhood in Ethiopia, and when I read names like Almaz, Kifle, Amman, Dawit and places like Arat Kilo, Sidist Kilo, Mercato, I cried, because those were all names I knew, and those were all places I’ve been to. We had a family friend called Almaz who was like a big sister to me. Yayehyerad Kifle was one of my best friends (we used to call him Mamush. Mamush was a kind of pet name for many Ethiopian boys.) Amman was another friend of mine. He told me that he was named after the great Ethiopian general. There was an old Italian man who used to live in Amman’s house, probably his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed back after the Italians left after the Second World War. He had an old Second World War Italian motorcycle, and every year he used to service it and get it ready and then ride it on the streets, and we kids used to run after him. Dawit (Ethiopian version of David) was the name of the son of one of my mom’s friends. The school my dad used to work in, Menelik School, was located at Arat Kilo. Mercato was a bustling market, and I’ve been there many times. So reading the book took me back across time and made me relive my own experiences.

During the time period that the story is set, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military and then killed. (The Ethiopian military probably followed the French and Russian playbook – kill the king and all his relatives. The only guys who did it differently and which had interesting results, were the Chinese. They put the emperor through a ‘re-education’ programme, and then offered him a government job. He became a government employee, lived life like a regular person, and retired as a government employee. It was almost like a Kafka story.) The military dictatorship called the Derg took over, imposed a communist totalitarian rule across the country, banned private property, and the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated all his critics and opponents. This book describes how rebels were shot dead and their bodies were thrown on the streets as a warning to other rebels and people who wanted to protest against the government. I can’t remember any of this from my childhood though. My childhood was filled with regular childhood stuff – going to school, coming back home, making my parents’ lives challenging, playing football with my friends on the streets, or doing crazy stuff like climbing water tanks like a monkey. I don’t remember gun battles on the streets and people being shot dead and bodies being thrown on the main streets. On one or two occasions, I remember soldiers carrying stenguns knocked at our door and searched our apartment. My dad said later that they do this everytime there is a coup. I remember the soldiers being polite and nice. It all felt like an adventure to me.

So the book was a big surprise to me, of course. I didn’t know that the horrors that were mentioned in the book had happened. I can’t believe that I had lived in the middle of it. My dad went to work in Ethiopia when the Emperor was still around, and he continued to work there after the coup when the military took over. A year after my dad came back, the Derg dictatorship was overthrown and Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country. I need to talk to my dad and find out how things were at that time, especially at the time of the coup and the years after that, when things were really hard and the government of that time did unspeakable things. When you are living in another country, you are mostly living in a bubble, and you never know what is happening to a local citizen and what kind of pressure and fear they are living through. I think that is what happened to my family and others like mine. But my dad taught Ethiopian and African history and so he probably knew better. Need to talk to him soon.

I enjoyed reading ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ though it was mostly heartbreaking to read. I’m looking forward to reading Maaza Mengiste’s next book ‘The Shadow King‘ soon.

Have you read ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘? What do you think about it?

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